Brexit will be top of the agenda for many as they head to the polls on June 8, no more so than in Hartlepool. Stuart Arnold reports

THE European Union referendum outcome was never in doubt in Hartlepool.

The town – which famously once elected a man in a monkey suit as its mayor – has always felt somewhat disconnected from the rest of the North-East, geographically and perhaps politically also.

When it came to the vote to leave the EU, Hartlepool said ‘we’re going’ in resounding fashion. The Leave vote garnered 69.6 per cent, the highest in the region.

The eventual result was celebrated long into the night in some parts, no more so than on the Headland, the bit of Hartlepool which juts out defiantly into the North Sea and contains a pub, The Cosmopolitan, which is run by a UKIP councillor, Tim Fleming.

UKIP has long cottoned onto its popularity in Hartlepool. The party’s leader, Paul Nuttall, launched the party’s official election campaign in Hartlepool and claimed it stood a “great chance” of success at the General Election.

A four per cent swing from Labour would do the trick, but it’s not only UKIP that fancies its chances in the town, which is traditionally a Labour seat and was previously held for more than a decade by Peter Mandelson, ironically a fervent pro-European.

The Conservative Home website recently described Hartlepool as one of the party’s top target seats in the North-East.

“Brexit to many people meant investment in the NHS – particularly as the hospital in Hartlepool is such a political hot potato,” says Hartlepool independent councillor Paul Thompson.

“They picked up this idea that there would be an extra £350m to spend on it, even though that wasn’t true. Personally I don’t think UKIP have the support they enjoyed as recently as just under a year ago, but there is a whole anti-establishment movement, particularly in Hartlepool, where voters do feel disenfranchised by the establishment.”

Cllr Thompson says the Tories may have a good chance in Hartlepool, as a result of traditionally die-hard Labour supporting residents considering switching allegiances.

“They don’t trust Corbyn, they don’t trust some of the politicians locally and perhaps they don’t think Labour will get the best deal coming out of Europe,” he says.

“On balance we are still likely to have a Conservative Government on June 9 and many people I’ve spoken to in Hartlepool feel that by voting Conservative we may at least have somebody who can pick up the phone and speak to the Prime Minister or a Government minister and get things done for Hartlepool. We have not enjoyed that for a number of years.”

FATHER-of-five Rob Snowdon, who lives on Hartlepool’s Owton Manor estate and is a traditional Labour voter, agrees that people from the town have felt ignored.

“In towns like Hartlepool the reason why the Brexit vote was so high is because generations have been ignored by Westminster and been left in isolation with no hope of economic recovery, it’s like a backwater,” he says.

“Opportunities are few and far between. The Brexit vote in Hartlepool was a rejection of Labour and the Conservatives and of all politics really.”

He said he knew quite a few people who voted for Brexit.

“They have just lost faith in the mainstream political system, but to me it is more of a protest vote, as is supporting UKIP.

“My hope is that their vote will crumble in Hartlepool, but some folks will still vote for them and quite a lot of people that do will have Brexit at the forefront of their minds. People were expecting to see faster progress in terms of an exit policy so it’s also possible they will vote for the Conservatives for that reason.

“As a big Labour voter it may be the best thing to happen, it actually might get us noticed in Westminster because we have been ignored for far too long.”

Mr Snowdon, a 57-year-old ex-chemical industry worker, said he did not believe immigration – the number one issue for most Brexit voters – was any more of a problem in Hartlepool than it has been previously.

“I live in the middle of a council estate and we have some Syrian folks now and they have been warmly accepted, although there are plainly some people who will always be opposed.”

He also says new energy and ideas are needed in the North-East and some “proper joined-up” thinking, not just from politicians, but a much broader partnership of individuals and organisations.

“Towns like this could be making a real contribution to the economy and that is my real hope for the next generation of young people here.”

For his part, Cllr Thompson is just excited by what is about to unfold on election night.

“It’s going to be interesting. I am even sort of looking forward to the eighth, I might even stay up all night and watch it.”